Film Review: Compliance
Compliance is one of those films that you can’t wait to discuss afterwards, regardless of your opinion on it. It’s edgy and thought-provoking, sometimes subtle and sometimes blunt. It operates like a horror film, starting with a familiar, benign set-up and then slowly escalating to a fever-pitch of insanity. If it flies off the rails at times, it’s at least due to ambition rather than laziness.
The film centres around a phone call that is placed to a fictional American fast food restaurant, the ChickWich. The caller says that he is a policeman, and that he has proof that a staff member has stolen money from a customer’s purse. He speaks to the manager, Sandra (Ann Dowd), and asks her to hold the suspected staff member, Becky (Dreama Walker) and keep her under observation until he can get there. Becky vehemently denies having stolen anything. The caller remains on the line, monitoring the situation remotely and providing further instructions. The film is about how the various characters in the restaurant respond to these instructions.
The film recalls the classic Milgram psychological experiment, conducted in 1961, which tested its subjects’ obedience to figures of authority. It demonstrated how people can often divorce themselves from the responsibility of their actions if they are ‘following orders.’ Unsurprisingly, it is often discussed in relation to Nazism.
Furthermore, the film is based on a real incident that occurred at a McDonald’s in Kentucky in April 2004. If you are not familiar with the incident, wait until after you have seen the film before reading about it. While a couple of moments suggest that the filmmakers are taking ludicrous liberties with the facts, some quick research suggests otherwise. The filmmakers stick remarkably close to the actual events, and were tasked with making an unlikely series of true events seem credible.
For the most part, writer/director Craig Zobel’s film is very well-crafted. The script quickly introduces the characters and establishes their interpersonal dynamics. It effortlessly captures the feel of working in a customer service job, and the relationships that people have to different types of co-workers. At the start of the day, Sandra is already on the back foot due to a freezer being left open and a large amount of food spoiling. When the call arrives, her ability to competently do her job as manager is already in question.
The characters feel believable, and their different reactions to the situation are fascinating, especially as it starts to escalate. The acting is uniformly excellent, with Ann Dowd particularly good as Sandra. I also really liked Philip Ettinger and Ashlie Atkinson, who play two of Becky’s co-workers. There is a wonderful moment in which Ettinger’s character almost laughs at the instructions that the caller gives him. It’s a horribly uncomfortable situation, but the character can see the almost comical absurdity in it.
As I mentioned before, there is a stretch in which the film seems to fly off the rails, pushing things well beyond reality. The realisation that the events depicted actually happened doesn’t change this instinctive reaction, but puts it in perspective. The filmmakers clearly struggled to portray a logical character progression that led to these scenes. But since the actual events occurred during such a heightened, hysterical situation, there is little logic to them. It’s a shame that the script wasn’t able to better integrate these moments into the story, but I certainly sympathise with the difficulty of the task.
What makes Compliance work so well is that it never condescends to its characters. Zobel presents their actions as deeply flawed but not beyond our understanding. They are humans, not puppets in some morality play (which this could have been in the wrong hands). Zobel leaves you to judge the characters or empathise with them or flatly claim that you would never do such a thing in that situation. He doesn’t tell you how you should view this situation; he simply tries to present it in a believable fashion and leaves you to draw your own conclusions.
There are several moments of brilliance during Compliance. There are a couple of moments that seem utterly stupid. Research into the actual event throws new light on the entire story. The script is very good, and the acting is excellent. Zobel is confident behind the camera. Compliance is not an easy film to watch, but it is incredibly fascinating, and whatever your reaction to it, it will give you a lot to talk about afterwards.
Note: Compliance is now screening at Cinema Nova in Melbourne